A shiny, black Escalade sits outside an abandoned warehouse on the corner of Front and Butler downtown. In the passenger seat, a man with a shaved head is facing the back seat, deep in conversation with someone not visible through the tinted windows.
If it weren't for the television cameras and the 20 crew members standing nearby, this scene might appear to be a shady mob deal.
And that's the look producers of the Fox television pilot Southern Comfort wanted. The crew was in town last Thursday shooting scenes for the Memphis-based mob drama.
"It's sort of like The Sopranos from a female point of view," explains executive producer Ken Topolsky, whose production credits include The Wonder Years and Party of Five.
Southern Comfort concerns an upscale Memphis woman who reluctantly takes over her husband's crime business after her home is raided and he is arrested. She assumes the family business to feed her four children and pay off debts she inherits from her jailed husband.
The pilot is being shot entirely in Memphis, and if the series is picked up, it will begin airing on Fox this fall. The crew will be shooting in various Memphis locations for about two weeks. Last Friday's shoot, for example, took place on the Memphis University School campus.
"We chose Memphis because there's something different about it, yet it still feels familiar," says Topolsky. "We talked about Biloxi, but as we started thinking about the story, we realized there's a world of difference between the perception of Biloxi and the perception of Memphis."
At least 50 locals were hired to work on the cast and crew of the pilot, doing everything from makeup to wardrobe to assistant directing.
Gloria Belz, a local makeup artist, has done work on The Firm, a short-lived Memphis-based TV series on Elvis called Good Rocking Tonight, and shows at The Orpheum.
"In between takes, we powder actors, wipe off perspiration, and maintain lipstick," she says during a break from Thursday's shoot.
"If this pilot is picked up, Memphis will never be the same," says Linn Sitler, head of the Memphis and Shelby County Film and Television Commission. "If we can get our incentive legislation passed, we'll have a good shot at recruiting the series to base here."
If passed, pending state legislation would offer tax incentives to film and television producers wishing to work in Tennessee.
"Unless we get competitive production incentives passed," says Sitler, "we don't have much of a future as a film center."